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Bikes that made me: 1983 Yamaha XZ550 Vision

Jan 06, 2023

The thing about "cult bikes" is that it's hard to leave 'em once you've drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid. When it comes to the Yamaha Vision, let's just say my radiator runneth over.

It's been four decades since the 1982 XZ550 was unveiled and about 15 years since one of them properly introduced me to motorcycling. This particular Vision, in all its apparitions, has gone from mothballs and mystery to miracle then museum piece. It has been pushed home, torn down, built up, been in print, and even collected an award. But above all, it's an heirloom that forced logic and humility upon a complete know-nothing.

That knowledge, worth its weight in stator windings, offers up the benefit of hindsight — invaluable amongst Visionaries and all other long-suffering cultists who keep their rarities running. Some bikes make you. Others try to break you. The tuning fork company really split the difference this time, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

studio photo of the Yamaha XZ550 Vision
Yamaha XZ550 Vision: quirky and short-lived. Yamaha photo.

R&D of the "Vee"

Yamaha's middleweight XZ was no UJM. The 70-degree V-twin motor, V-shaped gas tank, and angular bodywork practically leapt off the sketch board to put the "V" in Vision. It was brimming with innovative ideas and priced accordingly at around $3,000, which didn't help. Some of those bells and whistles just weren't ready for production, which also didn't help. This mixed bag of a bike wore two brake discs up front, a drum brake out back, shaft drive propulsion, liquid cooling, dual overhead cams, twin downdraft Mikuni carburetors, and an optional fairing as a last ditch to drum up sales. It could sport, tour, and race with the rest of 'em and plenty still are today.

Cycle magazine said at the time it had "the best V-twin street bike engine we've tried" and that makes sense, given Cosworth and Porsche's reported involvement. Motorcyclist said the '83 iteration was a "sophisticated piece of engineering" that suffered from some "ride-ability problems" the year before. There’s also the American Motorcyclist cover of one being hauled off by a tow truck, but I digress. A two-year run was all she wrote: fueling flat spots, leaking starter motor seals, smoked stators, starter clutch bolts that wriggle free and wreak havoc, an engine that overheats at every red light — even with the thermostat deleted — and a "start" button that does anything but. Don’t get me wrong: this bike boogies, sounds bitchin' and looks the business… it just needs a bump start to get going.

the author's father and his friend on their new Visions in 1983
Double Vision! Straight out of the showroom in 1983 and right to one of New Jersey’s best biker bars, two Yamaha XZ550s take their first tour. The one on the left is the bike I’d learn on decades later. Photo provided by Greg Adomaitis.

"Dad's old Yamaha" became my Vision

Add up the aforementioned faults and Yamaha starts cutting its losses come 1983. With the price slashed in half, my dad and his cousin swoop in to score showroom-new XZs. There's the celebratory post-purchase photo, scenes from Daytona Bike Week, and my parents in two-up tour-tough regalia. Those five digits on the odometer suddenly tell a story I'd never heard through snapshots I'd never seen. I have the faintest of childhood memories of a bike under a blanket, exhaust pipes just peeking out, but I was preoccupied with a Yamaha PW50, so let's fast-forward to 2008.

With a freshly minted motorcycle license and ready to retire the dual-sport that I'd pressed into street service, I roll out the XZ. Flat on the tank in the driving rain headed south down I-95 to a military museum in Maryland, which we learn upon arrival is closed to civilians, is my first real introduction to big bores. It's "dad's old Yamaha" when someone asks. I don't know the model; it's fast and it's red and it usually starts. What I really failed to grasp was that a tired vintage item might not be the best beginner bike, but there's no soul to that story.

author at a younger age on the Vision
As it sat pre-restoration, this apparition of the Vision was ready for a refresh. Big miles, faded paint, peeling decals, a huge dent I put in the tank, missing side panel, extra-long rear fender, and no clue there was an optional fairing up in the barn. Photo by Greg Adomaitis.

Jumping ahead another decade to 2018, I plunk down exactly five $20 bills for a supposed non-runner Vision. Turns out it was just loaded up with bird seed that'd been squirreled away, and it shotgun-blasts itself to life for the first time in a long time. This one has its own brand of gremlins, though, so the plan is to turn two Visions into one. The final product of our total tear-down, all sandblasted and glinting in BMW's signature hennarot red, is a testament to a winter's worth of weekends. It's finished with days to spare before the annual Gathering of the Nortons.

the Vision and a donor bike, ready to be worked on
Misery loves company. Vintage Visions in their natural habitat: guts hanging out with test leads and tools all over as we prepare to swap stators or ignitor boxes between dad’s bike and my equally beleaguered $100 version. Photo by Greg Adomaitis.

Of cult bikes and common sense

You certainly had a Vision of your own at some point, just under a different catchy name. It came from the factory with budget-friendly parts, suffered a design flaw only consumers would discover or was just plain ugly. But by God you paid your money and you were going to right those wrongs. This was the bike that produced pure elation as you outwitted the engineers and coaxed it back to life. It was the one that slowly transformed into the custom of your dreams… or just had the kinks ironed out of.

building the two Visions into one
A finish line is on the horizon as the sandblasted and valve-adjusted engine has been hoisted back into its painted cradle. Photo by Greg Adomaitis.

My stable has since grown (it's funny how fast four more turn up), but the one that lit it all off will always have a home here. So call 'em "cult bikes" if you'd like; I just think that stops short of a hard-earned membership to an exclusive club of mechanical masochists who can't listen to common sense and have a soft spot for runts. After all, there’s no such thing as a free dog.

the finished restoration
Not an imperfection in sight with just days to go before the 2019 Gathering of the Nortons bike show. “Ride ‘em, don’t hide ‘em,” as they say. Photo by Greg Adomaitis.

Every motorcycle tells a tale and some leave a legacy. I don't know about the next chapter, but the footnotes of this one are all around: an overpriced plastic scale model, a coffee mug from the online forum, and crates of OEM gizmos that hardly worked when they left Hamamatsu 40 years ago. Then there's the little magazine blurb declaring the Vision — my first real motorcycle that gave so much and asked for even more in return — the very worst of the 1980s. A "half-baked" bike with a reputation "damaged beyond repair," reads the clipping that's stuck to the fridge. Whatever. It’s good for a laugh when grabbing a beer and going back to the garage to try again — and I'm fine with that.

the Vision with an award won at the Gathering of the Nortons show
The ol’ Vision fittingly brings home the bronze — and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Photo by Greg Adomaitis.

Should you consider a Vision of your own? If I haven't scared you off yet, there are still plenty of Visions out there changing hands for cheap. Maybe not $100 cheap, but no more than $2,000 for a runner. While a bike built this side of the century would have been infinitely less stressful, I've inherited the obligation to suffer for my art. Learn from those willing to teach and you'll pick up tricks of the trade for those days when nothing goes right. Just remember to laugh about it later.